In my earlier review of Whitey and the 78’s, I mentioned that my friend Russell worked for Whitey for a time. When Russell asked if I wanted to go with him to see two nights of Honky Tonk in two cities in Alabama, my response was, obviously, “hell yeah.”
As I wrote before, this band plays real Honky Tonk indebted to both Haggard and Jennings, with a touch of the rock (think early AC/DC) to boot. Whitey is a great performer and his band keeps getting better.
Authenticity is a hallmark of Country Music, according to almost everyone interviewed in Ken Burns’ Country Music PBS doc. I have watched all episodes aired so far, and the stories of Jimmie Rogers, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and the amazing Hank Williams have been fascinating. As with all of Burns’ documentaries, I have learned so much. On this trip we went to Montgomery, Alabama, and took the time to visit Hank Williams’ gravesite. The cemetery was empty and the visit strangely touching: the great ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’s’ songs engraved on his marker, Hank buried next to his true love, wife Audrey. I think artists like Whitey Morgan fully understand the tradition that reaches back to Hank, Jimmie, and the others.
The venue in Birmingham, Iron City, was a great spot with a good stage and great sound, the best I’ve heard at a Whitey show. The soundman believed in turning the solos up (many don’t, or don’t bother). They opened with a killer version of ‘Bad News,’ and quickly were tonkin’ through Johnny Paycheck’s ‘Cocaine Train.’ Pedal steel man Brett Robinson, a skinny Alabama boy with a big cowboy hat, was outstanding throughout. There was a sad tale of love gone wrong, ‘Back To Back,’ a true tear-in-your-beer tune.
Whitey mentioned he had been off the road, and he needed “time off from his time off,” before launching into ‘It’s Been A Long Time (Since I Had A Good Time),’ one of his many excellent drinking songs. Shortly after, this was followed by his cover of ‘That’s How I Got To Memphis,’ highlighting the tasteful and so in the pocket rhythm section of Alex Lyon (bass) and Eric Savage (drums). Being a bass player myself, I was astounded by how effortless Alex’s playing was; he makes it sound simple, but his playing is anything but simplistic or basic. There was an astounding version of ‘Bourbon And The Blues,’ extended at the end with an amazing descending part that reminded me a little of ‘I Am The Walrus.’ The end of the set featured an always great cover of ZZ Top’s ‘Just Got Paid,’ and Whitey’s superb version of Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire.’ The crowd-pleaser ‘I Ain’t Drunk, I’ve Just Been Drinking’ followed. Encores were ‘Sinner’ and a cover of ‘Fire On The Mountain.’ For being off for three weeks, Whitey and the 78’s delivered the goods.
The next night we headed to the coast and Mobile, Alabama, a city I’ve never been to. Downtown definitely had a mini - New Orleans vibe. The venue, Soul Kitchen, was an old converted Woolworth’s, with a good stage and so-so sound. This was the band’s first time in town, and even though we heard most of the same songs as the prior night’s set, this was a very different show. Whitey, the drinking song king, was, like a Christmas tree, a little lit up. Honestly it didn’t affect his performance: he flubbed a couple of verses, and, for the taciturn Whitey, was very, very chatty with the audience.
The band was loud and powerful and turned on a dime. In addition to the aforementioned songs, there was an authentic version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Swinging Doors,’ and a killer ‘Me And The Whisky.’ Tonight’s MVP was definitely lead guitarist Joey Spina, absolutely tearing it up all night and providing great vocal backups. He even blew up his high-priced boutique amp and ran off stage to get a little spare amp, got it set up and was playing before the song was over. The new guy on keys and vocals (I think his name is Edmund) really added a lot to the sound. The liquor was flowing, on stage and off, and Whitey seemed genuinely happy. The crowd (drunker than the band) was totally apeshit for the show; Whitey and the band made a lot of fans in Mobile.
Whitey and the 78s are still poised for bigger and bigger things, I believe, as long as they don’t let the bottle bring them down. As I watch the Burns’ series, I am reminded that there is a price for authenticity in the hard-living honky tonk world. Let’s hope Whitey doesn’t become a cautionary tale, because he deserves a story with a better ending, one in keeping with his talent.
Here’s to you, Whitey Morgan!
Whitey and The 78's Live in Birmingham 9/19/2019 from Youtube